Next-gen success

Credit: Illustration by Alicia Corman

Research shows that your ZIP code determines where you'll eventually end up in life. So what happens when you leave your ZIP code, but your ZIP code and all of its dark remnants refuse to leave you?

For this first-generation college graduate who started life as a troubled girl "straight outta Baltimore," impostor syndrome is what happened. I hear echoes of my mother's voice inside my head saying, "You're stupid, you're not good enough, and you'll never achieve anything." That same voice led me down a reckless path of emotionally and physically abusive relationships, and some bad lifestyle habits and poor life decisions, not to mention a codependent relationship with my undereducated family that just didn't know how to handle it all.

A lifetime of broadsides triggered countless internal-monologue tennis matches. "So you think I'm stupid, huh? Interesting. I'll show you how stupid I am!" When it came to my education, something inside me clicked, and I certainly wasn't going down without a fight; I had already been through the ringer a few times and was not even close to giving up. I fought blood, sweat, and tears with the grit and determination that I think only my fellow first-generation graduates will ever understand and appreciate.

I received my GED, enrolled in a community college, earned my bachelor's degree from Drexel University, and pursued a master's degree in marketing from the Carey Business School. I surrounded myself with so many intelligent and successful people along the way, yet I was always fearful that my background could potentially be used as a weapon against me, or that I'd be victimized as some kind of damsel in distress—or even worse—that I'd be exposed for the fraud that my impostor syndrome tried to tell me I was.

Undaunted, I earned my master's degree in August. I couldn't have felt prouder as I unrolled my diploma from its mailing tube. This piece of paper has now become an important part of my identity, and yet no one would have ever guessed that I would achieve such academic success. You see, I'm certainly not the first one in my family to drop out of high school, but I am the first ever to enroll in college, and in many ways I always knew deep down that my education would save me from that brutal inner game of self-esteem tennis, where one day I was confident, the next a fraud. How brilliant that I mastered the self-doubting voices inside my head, which generated a transition into being an overachiever, a perfectionist, a lifelong learner, and a relentless fighter—the perfect storm for impostor syndrome, and yet the perseverance necessary to always, as we say at Carey, "Build for what's next."

Amy Barley is the marketing manager at Eastern Savings Bank in Hunt Valley, Maryland, and is writing her first book. She volunteers with several local nonprofits that help economically disadvantaged women and children.